The American Indian American Dream

By , University Park, PA
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”  This question, little did we know, was our initiation into the addictive concept of the American Dream. Every child in the world is taught to believe in the pursuit of happiness, the American Dream, the dream of a better life.  In 1931, Truslow Adams said “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” and The United States Declaration of Independence states, “all men are created equal.”  Both of these statements, spoken by influential white males or written in documents by white males, advocate for the “typical” American Dream.  

The typical American Dream is an individualistic goal of achieving a high social class and wealth, and centralizes around white privilege, which is the “special advantage or benefit of white persons; with reference to divine dispensations, natural advantages, gifts of fortune, genetic endowments, social relations, etc” (Clark).  An example of the typical American Dream, although a fictional story, is The Great Gatsby, a book written by Fitzgerald.  The main character, Gatsby, is a man who set out to achieve the American Dream, of high social class and wealth, and succeeded in doing so.  Many other characters like Tom, in the beginning of the book, express that they too want to achieve this American Dream, by expressing their admiration for Gatsby’s achievements.  Tom and Gatsby’s ambitions to achieve a high social class and wealth, reflect the typical American Dream in today’s society.  However, although this was a fictional book written in 1925, it was a completely accurate depiction of who was realizing the American Dream; the typical white male. While I haven’t read every book published during, and there after, it would be suffice to say this book reflected the majority of white males experiences and not any minority within the US.  Due to the fact that our country has a preoccupation with race, American Indians, African Americans, and Latinos, were not having the same experiences, in relationship to the American Dream, as Tom and Gatsby were.  White privilege is a reality in our country, caused by the continuous oppression that has made the American Dream elusive for the American Indian.  Although we live in a society that has given us the ideology that the “American Dream” is available to everyone, that is not true for minority groups, like the American Indian.  

Before seeing the inequalities that the American Indian face in achieving their American Dream, we just first recognize the definition of the American Dream for the American Indian.  The American Dream to the American Indian is not individualistic; it is the common goal of leading our people out of suppression as a whole, through education. Sherman Alexie is a well-known American Indian writer who has inspired American Indians across the country with his success, who wrote Super Man and Me where he speaks of his own definition of the American Dream and how he came to that dream.  He first learned how to read at age 3, through a Super Man comic book, that was fostered by his father who loved books with a passion.  He says, “I can remember picking up my father’s books before I could read.  The words themselves were mostly foreign, but I still remember the exact moment when I first understood, with a sudden clarity, the purpose of a paragraph” (Sherman 1). He began to teach himself to read, through this self-discovery of paragraphs.  By the time he was in kindergarten, he was reading Grapes of Wrath, and says “If he’d been anything but an Indian boy living on the reservation, he might have been called a prodigy.  But he is an Indian boy living on the reservation and is simply oddity” (Sherman 3). He has come to see the inequality that exists among his reality.  He, just like so many young American Indian today, realize that they are not given the same opportunities as a white child.  Alexie says, “As Indian children, we were expected to fail in the non-Indian world” (Sherman 3), this was his realization of the world he was immersed in.  He saw the expectations that were asked of him and his peers, and saw that they did not measure up to non-Indians. By means of breaking free from these expectations and suppressions, and saving his life, he read.  He became a writer of short stories, novels, and poems.  He uses his success in writing and education, to inspire American Indian youth and adults to pursue a better education, because he knows that education is what saved him.  He sees the oppression of belittling and the “less than” mentality that so many American Indians are still subject to today.  The history of the American Indian is the reality of perseverance in a world of oppression. This is the reality among many American Indian students in the country.  We are expected to fail in a white community, expected to crumble under pressure, and expected to be less than.  He saw that American Indians were suppressed in the schools, by recognizing the label of stupidity inflicted upon him and his classmates, which formed his own “American Dream” as an American Indian male.  His American Dream is to clear the pathway of oppression for American Indian children everywhere, by leading by examples, stressing the importance of education, and helping youth realize their own abilities.  

Patricia Capture, an American Indian woman who is in pursuit of her own “American Dream”, discusses her own perception on that dream, as well as how she came to that perception in an interview conducted on December 5th, 2011.  For privacy purposes her name, as well as names that she uses to tell her story, have been changed.  She is an enrolled member of the Nakoda tribe in Fort Belknap, Montana, where she grew up as a child.  She attended the reservation school system all twelve years and was not only a witness, but also the subject of the suppressions that exist among American Indians. She is well connected to her cultural roots, being instilled with the teachings of the Nakoda and White Clay people.  She grew up attending sweat lodge ceremonies, pipe ceremonies, the Native American Church, and social gatherings of dancing and singing.  She has completed her four years of Sundancing in the spring, which is a ceremony of fasting and prayer.  After completing her twelve years of schooling on the Fort Belknap Reserve, she then attended ASU, where she graduated with her Master’s in Education Degree.  She then went onto attend The Pennsylvania State University, where she received her Principal ship Degree, and continues to work towards her PhD degree in Educational Leadership.  When asked about her American Dream, Capture responded by saying, “Well my American Dream is different from other people’s dreams.  My dream, as a contributing member of my society and my culture, is to help American Indians reach their full potential in education. So as an educator, my dream is to help American Indians, not to be rich, but it’s more looking at advancing my population and my group of people in helping them to succeed.”  I then asked, “And how have you come to that American Dream? That purpose?” in response.

In my school there was the mentality of “You’re not going to succeed anyways, so why try?”  It’s a mentality that was not only evident in how we were taught, but also within the basketball team.  My school had, and still has, some of the best talent and ability on the high line in basketball, but the minute they went to play big teams, who have the same talent and capability, they had defeated themselves by thinking, “Well they’re going to win anyway, so why should we try?” Not only that, but I could also see that same mentality within teachers.  They did not have high expectations for the students, and that transcended into their teaching.  The quality of instruction had the attitude of, “Well you’re not going to make it far anyways, so why should I give you really good instruction that is going to make you think outside the box and at a higher level?” Teachers were not outright with that mentality, but we all knew that that’s what they thought.  I had never had an outright experience with teachers suppressing their students, but my cousin and her classmates had.  Her class was told by a white teacher, “Oh you guys are just a bunch of Indians; you’re not going to make it off the reservation anyways!” I do not remember all the details, but I do remember that statement.  Although I had never experience anything like that in high school, others have, but I see that injustice and suppression more in how the teachers related to us, or didn’t relate.  They didn’t care about our education, if they had cared then they would have tried to invest in us and have good instruction that is going to push us.  I had a math teacher names Mr. Green, and he was really good.  We could all tell that he wanted us to succeed, because he pushed us.  There was also student to student oppression, where there is the mentality of “if you do get up, you speak your mind, you’re smart, you’re outgoing, and you get good grades, then you are trying to act better than everyone else now”.  Getting bad grades and flunking, that was the better and cooler thing to do.  After seeing and experiencing all of this injustice, it created my purpose in life, not my American Dream, but my purpose.  My purpose is to help build environments, within education, and academic institutions for American Indians that move them forward towards education, towards going onto college to become lawyers or doctors.  That is my purpose; it’s not an American Dream, but my purpose.

Capture‘s story may transcend to other American Indian women across America.  Patricia Capture and Sherman Alexie are prime examples of the inequalities that surround the American Indian American Dream.  These are the inequalities of opportunity, systemic racism, and white privilege.  Both have succeeded in fulfilling their purpose, or are in the process of achieving it, even though they were oppressed as American Indian people.  Both are helping the American Indian people in moving forward in education, as well as leading our people out of oppression, to create better lives for the many generations to come.  They have done this by going to college, but still remaining who they are, and remembering where they came from and why they work hard every day.  

Some may argue that the American Indians have had everything handed to them.  Many people have the misconceptions that American Indians get into college for free, they receive money from the government every month, they get free food and health care, and they are accepted to every college they apply to because they check the American Indian box.  One of my colleagues once told me that I would get into Princeton or Dartmouth, simply because I am a minority.  These are misconceptions that people carry with them every day. Minorities are not given hand outs.  American Indian people have to work twice as hard to achieve the “American Dream” of a movement towards leading our people out oppression, because of the systemic racism that created unequal opportunities and is embedded in the society we call, “The United States of America, the land of opportunity”.  

As American Indian people, we are working towards the common goal of breaking down the oppression the surrounds our reality every day.  We go through school, knowing that we are not only getting out education for ourselves, but for all Indian Country and the many generations to come.  There are many stories of injustices and successes that go unheard of; these are just some of the influential ones.  There are many realities that we, as American Indian, face today, but knowing that there is hope and prosperity, keeps us moving forward to a brighter tomorrow.
 





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